CARLSBAD, Calif. — The day after Scott Boras blasted Major League Baseball for allowing the “competitive cancer” of tanking teams to injure the sport’s popularity, deputy commissioner Dan Halem disputed the agent’s claims in his closing statements at the GM meetings.
Boras opened Wednesday’s bi-annual address to dozens of media members by citing MLB’s attendance drop the past season for 17 of the 30 teams. The agent directly attributed it to what he viewed as an unwillingness by owners in many markets to field a good product. His favorite example was the Marlins, whose per-game attendance was lower than the LSU baseball team.
“They’ve brought the MIA to Miami,” Boras cracked.
When the scenario was posed to Halem — who usually stands in for commissioner Rob Manfred at the GM meetings — he echoed MLB’s company line. Although it’s a fact that the sport dipped below 70 million in attendance for the first time since 2003, Halem refused to attribute the drop to any trend that Boras preached about.
“We certainly don’t agree with that characterization,” Halem said. “Teams rebuild every year. We had teams rebuilding last year, and some of those teams that were “rebuilding” did pretty well. We’ll have teams rebuilding this year.
“I don’t — and our owners don’t — believe that there’s any connections between the rebuilding process and overall attendance. There’s a variety of reasons for our attendance numbers. We had poor weather. The commissioner is heavily focused on that issue, but we don’t view a connection between the rebuilding process and attendance.”
When Halem was pushed on reasons other than weather, he touched on a deeper and more troubling concern for the sport.
“Just generally, there’s a lot of competition for people’s time,” Halem said. “Our local [TV] ratings were good. People may just be consuming baseball in different ways.”
As for the on-field product, Halem was pleased that the average time for a nine-inning game had been sliced by four minutes, 30 seconds from last year, down to an even three hours. He attributed that to shorter breaks between innings and pitching changes, as well as the new rule that limited mound visits to six for each team.
“It’s going in the right direction,” Halem said.
The expectation is that Manfred will look to trim that further for the 2019 season, possibly through implementing the much-discussed pitch clock. That topic will be on the agenda for next week’s owners meetings in Atlanta, where MLB’s competition committee also will convene on those matters. Other items on that list are sure to include the impact of defensive shifts, as well as what might be done about the lack of contact, something that Manfred often brings up as an issue.
“We’re an entertainment product,” Halem said. “Certainly we want to play the game in a way that’s compelling for our audience, including our younger audience. So we’re constantly looking at the way the game is changing organically. We work very hard on trying to reduce as much dead time in games as possible so games are played as crisply as possible.”
That came up in Halem’s discussions with GMs because it’s the strategy of the modern game, infused by the latest technological advances, that is changing the product in a variety of ways. Part of that gray area has expanded to include the evolution of sign-stealing, which came up again during the ALCS between the Red Sox and Astros.
As Halem pointed out, trying to decode an opponent’s signs is not illegal in itself. It’s the use of electronic means, such as cell phones or ballpark-mounted TV cameras, that cross the line. Still, given the suspicion of such activity league-wide, it’s particularly damaging to the integrity of the sport.
“I think the real issue here is giving clubs comfort that other clubs are not using electronic technology to steal signs,” Halem said. “So we took a variety of measures in the postseason to give clubs comfort that the rules were being enforced. We got some additional suggestions on things we can do at the more granular level.
“The issues that we talked about — the use of the centerfield camera, how much the commissioner’s office should monitor video rooms — those sets of issues we’re going to talk to the commisioner about and he’s going to make a decision about we should do next year, just so we can sort of tamp down this conversation of whether ballclubs are playing by the rules.”